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From Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing to Gossip Girl. Rachel Shukert for Babble.com.

In today's kid books, all the good guys are rich.

By Rachel Shukert |

Let me begin with a small disclaimer: it is not my intention to make anybody feel old, least of all myself. Although I already feel old; recently I stood next to a couple of thirteen-year-old girls in the shoe department over a display of Doc Martens, and realized I was a hundred and twelve. I am therefore entitled to bitch about how much better things were when I was young, so I’m just going to come out and say it: kids’ books aren’t what they used to be.I’m not talking about a fundamental change in difficulty, or subject matter, or even quality. This is a different kind of shift entirely, and it’s all about class.

There was a time when the shelves of the Young Adult section at the bookstore (or even the library, as the more ancient among you may remember) were filled with stories of smart, urban, and overwhelmingly middle class children doing very normal and often humorous things. There was Peter Hatcher, the original Fourth Grade Nothing, in an apartment building near Central Park with his parents, his hyperactive brother Fudge, a nightmare toddler, a deranged myna bird named Uncle Feather, and his sometime nemesis Sheila Tubman, a.k.a. Queen of the Cooties.

Just a few blocks away lived Caroline Tate, a youthful dinosaur enthusiast, and her brother J.P., a surly math genius with a photographic memory, with their struggling single mother in a walk-up a few blocks away from the Museum of Natural History. In Cambridge, MA, we could visit Anastasia Krupnik, a seventh grader with literary pretensions, her startlingly verbal three-year-old brother Sam, and her cheerfully bohemian mother and father, a book illustrator and a semi-successful poet.

On the other side of the country, in Portland, was Ramona Quimby, with her bossy sister Beezus, her home-made clothes, and her doll named Chevrolet, whose family goes through a difficult time when Mr. Quimby is laid off from his job. And who could forget the eternal saga of the Babysitters Club, in the sleepy Connecticut town of Stonybrook, whose members read like a perfect laundry list of responsible diversity: Claudia (Japanese), Jessie (black), Mary Ann (shy), Stacey (diabetic), Kristy (the tomboy). All were average kids with real-world problems: sibling rivalry, parents who worried about money, divorce, insecurity.

They’re all still there, these old friends, although they don’t occupy the prime bookshelf real estate they did in the past. Superfudge may have been priced out of Manhattan, but he’s still lurking around the bookstore equivalent of Carnasie or Forest Hills as another demographic has moved in. The Young Adult section has more than gentrified – it’s become downright aristocratic.

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About Rachel Shukert

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Rachel Shukert

Rachel Shukert is the author of Have You No Shame? And Other Regrettable Stories. (Buy it now on Amazon!) She lives in New York City. Her website is www.rachelshukert.com.

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23 thoughts on “From Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing to Gossip Girl. Rachel Shukert for Babble.com.

  1. CrankMama says:

    Brilliant piece! Imagine a show like Sesame Street coming out today… As someone who is ALSO 112 years of age, I love your viewpoint.

  2. regandbabe says:

    love this piece!And a note on the sesame street warning because of how the schools are run now the older sesame street doesn’t meet the needs of the prek set since most of the stuff you’ll learn on sesame street (the tangible numbers/letters stuff not the good feeling, friendly imagination stuff) your preschooler is already expected to know. developmentally the older sesame street is totally appropriate…it’s the schools that are getting developmentally inapproriate!

  3. iluvfudge says:

    don’t panic my seven year old is currently DEVOURING superfudge and all those books. on the upper west side, no less. then again, we watch star wars as a family with our 2 year old also, so maybe we are just not “developmentally appropriate” people.

  4. ItsAllRightToCry says:

    Great piece! Although it’s funny, I grew up in Florida and read all the Superfudge books (and their spinoffs!) and never had any idea that they took place in New York – on CPW no less! Living in the city now it’s kind of astounding to think about. Although my husband actually grew up on the Upper West Side and can attest to the fact that it wasn’t always as swanky as it is today. Maybe it’s just that the whole world has changed and the books (and crappy tv shows) reflect these times in which status is so important and looking like you have money (even if you don’t) takes precedence over substance or self-sufficiency. – Where are the Ramona Quimby’s of today?PS – Chevrolet has been the ‘working title’ of our next child for almost a year now – although now that it looks like we’re really having one, I don’t think my husband has the nerve to really go through with it :)

  5. katydidmama says:

    This is a really interesting piece. I too am 112, and am constantly aghast at what passes for “entertainment” these days. I remember what it was like to read “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” and “Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great” and “Blubber”–books that taught me a lot about how to treat other people. I know those books are still there, somewhere, on the shelves, but apparently they’re buried under the new, “hot” teen titles. I was just in B&N yesterday–teen fic is huge, and sex sells. And if you’ve read the NEA report on reading, even those aren’t selling like they used to, because we have CABLE! Look at the TV programming that’s available, from the basic channels all the way up–it’s bright, flashy, and lacking in substance…like candy, only it rots your brain instead of your teeth.

  6. Corporate Babysitter says:

    I ran across Gossip Girl for the first time yesterday when I was writing my own post. The book covers made me cringe! There are just too many good books out there to waste time on questionable one. We’d pick Island of the Blue Dolphins any day.

  7. a reader says:

    great article, but lumping all categories of childrens and YA together does no one any favors. Fancy Nancy is a picture book, and meant for younger readers. The Fudge books are middle grade titles, that is, books for kids ages 8-12. They’re not shelved under YA because they’re NOT YA, which are meant for older readers, either ages 12 and older, or more often, ages 14 and older. Comparing Gossip Girl to Superfudge makes no sense when you realize that Gossip Girl is written for highschoolers and Superfudge for fourth graders. And while it’s great to want the lit of your youth out there, don’t forget that there are awesome books being published for all age groups. Take a look at the most recent crop of Newbery, Caldecotts, and Printz winners! Have you read Mo Willems’ picture books? Do you not see The Invention of Hugo Cabret? Also, in focusing on the Gossip Girl phenomenon, it seems everyone forgets that there have always been fluffy entertainment books published for teens. Sweet Valley High, anyone? So many folks miss out on the enormous amount of high quality YA literature out there because they can’t see past the shiny endcaps of GG: what about M. T. Anderson, John Green, Frank Portman, David Levithan, Scott Westerfeld, Sarah Dessen, Chris Crutcher, Holly Black, Laurie Halse Anderson? If all you can see is GG, then maybe you should go check the shelves again–or better yet, go to the library and ask a YA librarian for some reccomendations.

  8. where are the black kids says:

    Awesome piece. I’m actually 113, and I am so disappointed in the diversity in Young Adult lit. Not only are middle class kids missing from contemporary YA books, minorities seem to be in the, well, minority. Unless it’s some little girl in the 1950s sweeping up her former-sharecropper grandfather’s front porch, the “Yes, Honey chile!” sidekick of some rich blonde chic, or some thug boy keepin’ it real in the ‘hood, black kids are no where to be found. I shudder to think that my daughter and son will have nothing to read with characters they can relate to. I think our personal library of board books is more diverse and positive about minorities than the YA section of a lot of big box bookstores.

  9. NachoMama says:

    I loved this article! As a die-hard Blume fan I loved all of her books…they allowed me to understand my crazy childhood and later my teenage world. AND all of my friends were reading her too which allowed me connection. Today’s books focus so much on money or status…it’s not about relationships and just being “kids”. The books also don’t represent our multicultural world in a down to Earth and positive way. I’m saving my old Blume books for my daughter.Thanks for this piece!Natasha http://www.creativenachos.com

  10. Jenelle says:

    Interesting article, BUT I have to completely disagree! I’m a sixth grade teacher, and there are sooooo many good books coming out all the time that I can’t keep up with them in my classroom library! I see great variety in young adult literature these days, as opposed to when I was in school in the 80s… you’re right, they WERE all middle class kids — they were also all white, all mostly well adjusted, and in the end, pretty much all the same goody-goody endings to a variety of similar, simplistic plot lines (I remember reading “Go Ask Alice” in middle school, and it was quite an eye opener!). My students, aged 11-13, are 90% hispanic, and I’m always being introduced to great stories, new character dynamics, and life lessons that I never knew about when I was in school. Don’t get me wrong, I still LOVE Judy Blume, but in order for kids to be able to connect with the world it’s great for them to be able to explore variety in their fiction. And at their age, they might be watching Gossip Girl on TV, but they’re picking up books like “Esperanza Rising” and “Holes” just for the thrill of reading!

  11. another reader says:

    I concur with “a reader.” You haven’t read enough.And don’t forget that Kristy in THE BABYSITTERS CLUB was the daughter of a millionaire (back when being a millionaire meant more than it does now).

  12. CarlyQ says:

    To “another reader”: actually, Kristy in the Babysitters Club was NOT the daughter of a millionaire. Her real father had left them when she was little, and she was growing up in pretty tight circumstances, until her mother married a rich guy many books into the series. And if I remember correctly, she was really uncomfortable with this–and with suddenly living in a big house and knowing rich people, and a lot of the new rich kids she meant were mean to her. i really liked this piece!

  13. Archie says:

    The books you refer to are such a minute sample of the books being published. You need to read more widely in the genre before you characterize it as being so narrow. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of books published every year that have the diversity that you suggest doesn’t exist. May I suggest a visit to the children’s library, rather than the bestseller YA shelf at the local B&N?

  14. A Disappointed Librarian says:

    I agree with everyone who disagrees with this article. It’s a real shame that YA lit and books for middle readers are being judged by what Barnes and Noble chooses to market heavily. I know I’m not imagining the incredible wealth and diversity in books out there today. To the suggestion that minorities are not represented, I offer Jacqueline Woodson, Walter Dean Myers, Sherman Alexie, Shaun Tan…the list goes on. The books are out there if you know who to ask for them, and let’s not forget that every generation of parents seems to be scandalized by the books (or perceived lack there of) kids read today. Remember how Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret? seemed like a bombshell? Writers are still challenging kids with great, relevant-to-their-time stories. Big box bookstores are great places to grab coffee and pick up that bestseller, but not the places to make sweeping assumptions about today’s books for kids and teens. Check with your librarian.

  15. I feel you but try again says:

    Dear Stuck-in-the-Seventies, I like where your heart is, but you are simply not educated about what’s out there now. Go to an INDEPENDENT bookstore, talk to the people who work there, and ask them for recommendations. Then read. For a long time. And then come back, and give a little publicity to some of the amazing books that are out there now.

  16. On The Fence says:

    I hear what you’re saying – but you need to read more books before you pose as an expert on the subject. I admit these rich-kid YA books are bugging. No doubt about that. Unfortunately, they are what most publishers sink their big money into. So, for that reason, I’m happy about this piece. Perhaps if we say to the big corporations that we don’t want any more of this vapid rich-kid drama, they might begin to consider more books that pose a bigger challenge to readers and explore race, sexuality, class and other issues with more substance.But still, there are LOADS of great books out there that do not fit your stereotype, and you need to find a librarian or an independent bookseller who can help you find them.

  17. future writer says:

    I agree that this article uses overly broad generalizations. When I was a tween my parents took me to the bookstore every week. (I know, I was a lucky child.) I was allowed to get one book that I chose for myself (usually a Sweet Valley High) and one that they approved of. Then and now both kinds of books were being published, and then and now there is nothing wrong with readers reading and enjoying both types of books.But, just to give you an example of the majority of the kinds of books beign published today check out http://www.classof2k8.com. 28 books by debut authors coming out in 2008 and not a one could be compared with gossip girls._

  18. Read more_complain less says:

    This article offers a very narrow view of children’s literature today, and it makes me sad and disappointed to read it. Reading this and some of the comments make me think there are people out there who mistakenly believe that what is heavily marketed and what is made into a TV show is all that is available to young readers. And that’s far, far from the truth. What would have been a better use of this space would have been an article about all the literary gems available to kids that people don’t know about. To those of you wanting a modern day Ramona, read the Clementine books by Sarah Pennypacker. Other great authors contributing to children’s lit who I don’t think have yet been mentioned are: Lisa Yee, Shannon Hale, Jordan Sonnenblick, Bruce Hale, Kirby Larsen, Laura Amy Schlitz, Marcus Zusak, Avi, Linda Sue Park, Jerry Spinelli, Julie Anne Peters, Laura Resau, Mary Hershey, R. L LaFevers, Rick Riordan, Richard Peck, Jay Asher, Todd Mitchell, Laini Taylor, Jane Kurtz, Jennifer Choldenko, and I could easily go on and on. I am not exaggerating when I say my list here represents maybe a tenth of what is out there. I wouldn’t be surprised if it represents less than that. And these authors aren’t hidden or obscure; anyone familiar with children’s publishing would recognize those names. You can find their books in your library, independent bookstore, and even those dreaded chain bookstores. The chains may or may not have a huge colorful display or turn their books face out on the shelves, but they are there. Gossip Girls and books similar to it are a very tiny fraction of what is available to young readers. And furthermore, there has always been a Gossip Girls equivalent for every young reading generation. In the late 80s it was Sweet Valley High. And it amused me that Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing was raised as a counterpoint to Gossip Girls because it could be argued that Blume’s novels Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret; Forever; and Deenie were the Gossip Girls equivalent in the 70s.And to you 112-year-olds out there who lament the loss of books like Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Anastasia Krupnik, and Babysitters Club being published today: Did you know that all of those authors–Judy Blume, Lowis Lowry, and Ann M. Martin–are all still publishing today? Along with many other of your favorite children’s authors of the past. Children’s lit and YA is stronger than ever, in my opinion. The classics are still available but contemporary writers offer a much wider variety of topics, characters, and stories. If the only contemporary fiction for young adults that you can name is Gossip Girls (or something else that has been highly marketed like Harry Potter, Golden Compass, or Twilight series) then you don’t know enough about the genre to critique it. Go check out some of the authors that have been mentioned in the comments here. Not every author is going to suit every reader, but I guarantee you will be pleasantly surprised at the quality and variety that is out there.

  19. YA_reader says:

    Well said, Read more_complain less. I’m with you and all the others who expressed disappointment with this article. I too would rather have read a more informative piece highlighting the literary gems and great reads available in the YA market, rather than a snarky piece lamenting Gossip Girls and Rich Kids. There are many unique novels and YA authors who deserve to be recognized for the calibre of their writing as well as the complex (and entertaining) storylines. To people searching for minority characters in contemporary YA as well as children’s lit in general, try checking out these helpful sites for titles. And no, I’m not affiliated with any of them– I just happen to be a YA bookworm. :) http://thebrownbookshelf.com/http://latinaya.blogspot.com/http://www.poojamakhijani.com/sakidlit.html (South Asia & the South Asian Diaspora in Children’s Literature) http://www.cynthialeitichsmith.com/lit_resources/diversity/asian_am/asian_am.html (Children’s and YA books with Asian American themesAnd to think, these are only four of the many, many great resources out there. Imagine all the excellent books you missed by focusing only on the ‘fluff’ and buzz of the moment.Happy reading!

  20. Hippodameia says:

    Thank you so much for writing his. I couldn’t agree more with you, and you’ve put the main point much more eloquently than I could. I am a teenager, and I have NEVER read any of those God-awful rich brat books. Just going onto the Gossip Girl site out of curiosity provoked enough revulsion for me to never glance at the books again.To think that someone could write an ENTIRE SERIES on that privilege crap–that money and public humiliation is what makes life thrilling–is absolutely beyond me. Books don’t have to be brain-washingly rude and snobby to be real, and there are a ton of excellent, true, down-to-earth YA books out there that show us that.I must also add that a lot of YA books geared towards girls have become waaay too sappy as well, with very weak female characters. If you look at Stephenie Meyer’s dry and dull Twilight series, you’ll see what I’m talking about; the main character is bone-dumb and trips over everything in her path. Whatever happened to all the zombie-bashing, lock-picking quick-witted chicks in the media? Why have they been allowed to be obscured by all of the Blair Waldorfs in the literary universe?

  21. onthelearn dot blogspot dot com says:

    Certainly, Gossip Girls and the like represent a very small fraction of what is available.BUT, that doesn’t mean that the popularity of these books isn’t on the rise. I spent time as a student teacher at a middle school in a very wealthy district. This school utilized a reading workshop or choice literacy approach to instruction, meaning that students chose the books they wanted to read at all times (with the exception of 3 novels read as a class over the course of the year). The goal is to help young people develop into lifelong readers. Students could choose books from the classroom lib, the school lib, the public lib, or from home. Many of the 8th grade girls chose read the many series Shukert mentions (Clique, It Girl, etc.). These books act as veritable primers for the Gossip Girl series. The issue is that these books do not base one’s sense of self on anything related to interests, passions, hobbies, but rather the degree to which one (or one’s parents) can afford to buy in to consumer culture.Whether or not there are better options, young people are still consuming this crap. Of course, teachers and other responsible adults must do our best to entice students’ sensibilities for books that are not full of “aspiration without . . . inspiration.” We must question the presence of these books which simply are not on the same cultural par as those that have been mentioned from the past (Babysitters, etc.). And THANK YOU to the teenager above who recognizes how badly written the Stephanie Myers series is. You are on the right track with those sharp observations, girlfriend.

  22. that girl says:

    I completely agree with this article. I think the point here was that our middle class children have almost noone on tv or in literature to relate to. I get so sick to my stomach seeing crap like my sweet 16.

  23. mchaos says:

    Well, as a huge fan of children’s lit (I actually took a children’s lit college course), I’m on the fence. There are some amazing new books out there. However, there is a culture of rich people worship going on right now, gossip girl, tv, movies and celebrity teen worship attest to this. Sex has become much more acceptable in teen fic as well, with less attention to consequences. I think it’s just best to read what your kids read, and then you’ll know what to talk to them about. Agree on Sweet Sixteen – horrible train wreck of a show. Also really agree about Madonna’s book – oh poor me, I’m the best and the prettiest and everyone else is jealous and mean! Yeah, that’s a great message. If you don’t have time to read the books your kids are reading, read reviews. It’s just best to know what’s being said to them, if you can.

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